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Strong, Silent Types

Dec. 12, 2005
Dec. 12, 2005

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Dec. 12, 2005

HOCKEY
SI Players: Life On and Off the Field
From the Editor
Sportsman of the Year
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Strong, Silent Types

Twenty-five-point bonus question: If these people suited up tomorrow, which one wouldn't be able to rush for 1,000 yards behind the Denver Broncos' snowplow of an offensive line:
a) O.J. Simpson
b) Marge Simpson
c) The late Sen. Strom Thurmond
The answer is d) none of the above. You could put a 20-pound rump roast behind that line and it would get at least 1,050. The Broncos' line is the single most underappreciated unit in the NFL and the main reason Denver is 9-3 and leading the AFC West. So let's find out who these guys are!

This is an article from the Dec. 12, 2005 issue

"Sorry," the Broncos p.r. guy said. "The line doesn't talk to the press."

Never?

"Never."

Wait a minute. In the last 10 years no other NFL line has cleared the way for more rushing yards than Denver's, right? These guys keep getting handed schlubs and keep turning them into 1,000-yard stars, right? I mean, before he ran for 1,100-something yards as a rookie, had you ever heard of Olandis Gary? Or Mike Anderson (played in the high school band, not on the football team)? Reuben Droughns? Tatum Bell? Guys who ran like Plymouths before landing in Denver and like Porsches after? What, are these linemen crazy?

"Our line hasn't talked to the press for a good 10 years," the p.r. guy said.

Pah! I once got an interesting quote out of Bob Knight through a crack in the bathroom door. I bet myself I'd get the Broncos' linemen to give me a decent quote within two days or I'd loofah the neighbors' cat.

"Never going to happen," said a Denver TV guy. "They fine each other $10 for every quote. They tape the articles to each other's lockers. They'd never hear the end of it."

"No chance," said a beat writer. "I named [center Tom] Nalen the midseason MVP, and he hasn't said hello to me since."

"No way," said Broncos coach Mike Shanahan. "Nalen doesn't even talk to me."

Nalen is Denver's five-time Pro Bowl center who should go straight to the Hall of Fame. "Is it true you guys don't talk to the press?" I asked him.

Nalen looked at me the way a Saint Bernard looks at a hydrant. Silence.

"But you guys are the real stars behind the stars! You've made mooks into millionaires! Don't you want people to know who's behind that?"

Nothing.

I tried everything. I suggested we conduct the interview with the linemen wearing paper bags over their heads. They said no. I said I'd conduct it by conference call, since I can't identify them by their voices. No. I suggested e-mail. No. I said I'd pay them $10 a quote. No.

It's not as if they aren't interesting. Nalen is constantly throwing up, sometimes even in the huddle. Left tackle Matt Lepsis may not talk to reporters, but he does send them Christmas cards. The other three--Ben Hamilton, George Foster and Cooper Carlisle--all had great stories. But no.

Turns out this whole thing can be blamed on former line coach Alex Gibbs, who was famously insular when he was with Denver for two stints in the 1980s and '90s, and Gary Zimmerman, who was one of the greatest tackles ever but would have been happiest living by himself in a cave. Kind of an us-versus-them deal. "Nobody was talking to you when you weren't doing well," Gibbs would scream at his linemen, "and now they want to talk to you? Screw 'em!"

Now you know why Zimmerman isn't in the Hall of Fame. Here's a guy who played 12 seasons in the NFL and was voted to not one but two NFL All-Decade teams, yet he's still not in. Of course, he was a Bronco, the Team Canton Forgot: six Super Bowl appearances, one inductee (John Elway). The only other team that's played in as many Super Bowls--Dallas (eight)--is about to get its eighth and maybe ninth inductees (Troy Aikman and Michael Irvin). The Hall is picked largely by writers! Hell-ooooo, Mr. Nalen? Am I talkin' to a wall here?

Guess so.

Finally the p.r. guy told me, "Look, the O-line has designated a spokesman to talk to you. You can ask him any questions you want." It was Foster, a 338-pound third-year tackle. But he gave me quotes that were so useless and boring, they might as well have been in Swahili.

"Foster is a horrible quote!" I told Lepsis later. "He's a crap spokesman!"

"Why do you think we picked him?" Lepsis said, laughing.

Hah! That's a quote. Gotcha!

• If you have a comment for Rick Reilly, send it to reilly@siletters.com.

"You guys are the real stars behind the stars," I told Broncos center Tom Nalen, "You've made mooks into millionaires. Don't you want people to know who's behind that?"

PHOTOPETER READ MILLER